Dennis Anderson
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– An overflow crowd of as many as 800 hunters and landowners crowded into a school gymnasium here Thursday night to hear Department of Natural Resources wildlife managers explain why the agency wants to dramatically reduce deer numbers in a 371-square-mile area surrounding this picturesque town.

The meeting was called because testing by the DNR of hunter-killed deer this fall turned up two animals positive for chronic wasting disease (CWD). The deer, both bucks, were killed within a mile of one another a short distance from Lanesboro.

The CWD discovery was only the second in wild deer in Minnesota. The first was found in a single whitetail killed by a hunter near Pine Island, also in the southeast, in 2011.

Top DNR wildlife researcher Lou Cornicelli told the crowd Thursday that his agency will hold a special hunt between Dec. 31 and Jan. 15, with a goal of killing 900 adult whitetails to be tested.

The hunt will be indiscriminate, with does and bucks both targeted. The DNR expects as many as 300 fawns also will be killed — this in a region where special regulations in recent years have helped to cultivate a whitetail herd with proportionately more trophy bucks than any other area of the state.

“I think it’s a joke,’’ said Derek Poshusta, who owns land and hunts deer just outside the area designated for the special hunt. “I think they’ll kill a bunch of deer and they won’t find another one with CWD — just like what happened in Pine Island.’’

Since 2002, the DNR has tested 12,823 southeast Minnesota deer samples, finding none positive for CWD except for the single animal near Pine Island and the two killed this fall.

Still, Cornicelli and other DNR wildlife managers believe the only way to keep the disease from becoming endemic in whitetails in the southeast, and possibly throughout Minnesota, is to test as many deer as possible in the area surrounding a positive CWD hit.

No CWD test exists to check animals while alive. Thus the need to kill a large enough sample of a region’s herd, Cornicelli said, to determine an acceptable probability that the disease hasn’t spread to other animals.

Tim Marien, a wildlife health biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, led off the meeting in Preston detailing how CWD has become entrenched in the southern half of the Badger State.

Fully 43 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties are considered affected by CWD, Marien said, and his agency has given up hope of eradicating it.

“We know it’s here to stay,’’ he said.

Deer in some northern Iowa counties also are infected with CWD, increasing the chances they, or perhaps Wisconsin deer, could be transmitting the disease to deer in southeast Minnesota.

CWD is carried in the urine, feces and saliva of deer. To reduce the chance that congregating deer will spread the disease to one another, the Minnesota DNR will institute a deer feeding ban later this month in Fillmore, Mower, Olmstead, Houston and Winona counties.

Towns in the special southeast Minnesota hunting zone include Chatfield, Harmony, Lanesboro, and Wykoff, in addition to Preston. Most land in the area is privately held, and Cornicelli stressed that without the help of landowners, the goal of killing 900 adult deer will be challenging.

Any gun or bow legal in southeast Minnesota for deer hunting will be allowed during the special hunt. This excludes rifles, which are prohibited in the region.

Carcasses of deer killed during the hunt must remain in the special zone until they have been tested for CWD. Five special DNR stations will be set up to register harvested deer. Hunters who need a place to store carcasses until disease results are obtained can keep them in refrigerated trailers the DNR will provide.

If hunters fail to kill 900 deer, the DNR likely will contract with U.S. Department of Agriculture sharpshooters, who might congregate deer by using corn or other bait, Cornicelli said.

Baiting by hunters during the special season won’t be allowed.

Landowners also will be enlisted to reach the kill quota, and can designate shooters on their property, providing they obtain DNR permits. In these cases — as with the USDA sharpshooters — rifles will be allowed.

The prospect of killing so many deer indiscriminately in a region that in recent years has been populated with so many trophy animals was difficult to accept for some hunters Thursday evening.

“I don’t think anything will be figured out by killing all these deer,’’ said Jim Kellogg, who owns land in the special hunt zone. “But the DNR has made up its mind. So what are you going to do?’’

danderson@startribune.com